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Holy war in the Vatican

After mourning Pope Emeritus Benedict, Catholic traditionalists are again lining up against Pope Francis

Pope Francis prays with priests at the end of a limited public audience at the San Damaso courtyard in The Vatican in September 2020, during the Covid epidemic. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

“Say it to my face”. It is the sort of line that might be uttered by a defiant crime boss in a gangster movie as his former allies begin to turn against him. Which makes it doubly astonishing that the man who actually uttered it was the 86-year-old Pope Francis, reacting to a chorus of criticism of his papacy from the Catholic church’s traditionalist, conservative wing. The whispers began well before the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict on New Year’s Eve, and have grown in volume and vitriol since official mourning ceremonies concluded.

In recent days, they have become so loud that Francis felt the need to address them, granting an interview to the American news agency, The Associated Press. Conceding he would prefer differences be aired in private for the sake of “tranquillity”, the pope compared divisions to “a rash that bothers you a bit,” adding: “The only thing I ask is that they do it to my face because that’s how we all grow, right?”

His remarks cannot have passed unnoticed by Vatican insiders openly critical of Francis’s liberal leaning agenda and plans for further reform. They include the hardline conservative German cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller and archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary for almost two decades, whose newly published, tell-all memoir suggested Francis’ decision to limit the use of the traditional Latin mass had “broken the heart” of his former boss.

Another critic, the controversial Australian cardinal George Pell, died suddenly 11 days after Benedict, but not before writing a pseudonymous open letter in which he dismissed Francis’s papacy as “a toxic nightmare”. A fourth, US archbishop Timothy Broglio, has openly pondered Francis’ own resignation, while Italian newspapers have reported a “secret plan” by high-ranking cardinals to place the pope under such pressure that he will be forced to resign.

How could it have come to this?

The election of the first Latin American pope – the first non-European in 1,300 years – was supposed to usher in a new era of openness, tolerance and unity, yet a decade on, the church seems ever more divided. As I tried to understand the late Pontiff’s legacy and its effect on Francis’ increasingly vexed campaign to modernise the church, I thought back to 2008 and a bizarre moment in an aircraft high above the Australian desert.

I remember the order came without warning: “No pen, no notebook, no recorder: come with me.” A minute or two later, heart in mouth, I walked the length of a near-empty Qantas jet, through the curtains that shield first-class passengers, to be ushered into an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. It was an unforgettable, if brief, meeting with a white-haired old man with dark circles under his eyes who chatted benignly, held my hand gently like an ordinary grandfather and issued a sotto voce blessing as I left. Returning to my seat, I walked past a conclave of cardinals dressed in flowing, medieval garb, a surreal meeting of the 21st century with an ancient faith in a steel projectile hurting at 500mph above the earth.

Benedict’s visit to the Antipodes for World Youth Day, relatively early in his papacy, had been a global PR triumph. Footage of enormous crowds of young people thronging to see him on the shores of Sydney’s photogenic harbour were beamed all over the world, briefly reinvigorating his severe image. Not even a long awaited – and meticulously managed – meeting with angry survivors of sexual abuse in Australia could dampen his coterie’s ebullient mood. Benedict’s burial in the chasuble – the outer vestment worn by clergy – in which he celebrated Mass in Sydney says much about the success of the trip.

Fast forward just four and a half years and the old man who celebrated his last Christmas Eve Mass in Rome as pope looked exhausted and the media – from the New York Times to Der Spiegel in his native Germany – had become foes not friends.

Fate would have it that Benedict found himself at the helm of St Peter’s barque during the most shocking years of revelations of clerical sexual abuse of minors. Over eight years, leaked documents had also exposed a litany of scandal: financial corruption, blackmail of homosexual clergy, money-laundering schemes, allegations of a Vatican sex ring – much of it at the hands of what Benedict himself attributed to “the filth” in the curia – the central body through which the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church are conducted. And while supporters look back and insist that he moved decisively against Marcial Maciel Degollado, the serial bigamist and paedophile who founded the Mexican religious order, the Legionaries of Christ, his public downplaying of the seriousness and widespread nature of the crisis during his tenure as cardinal in Munich added a further, damaging layer to the ongoing controversies.

Pope Francis attends his weekly audience at the Paul VI Hall in Vatican City in October 2021. Photos: Franco Origlia/Getty

At the time of his resignation, speculation was rife that Benedict took the decision after receiving a comprehensive report on the so-called “Vatican (gay) lobbies” prepared by a special investigation team led by three cardinals, Josef Tomko, Julián Herranz, and Salvatore De Giorgi. The pontiff had ordered the inquiry in the wake of the first, so-called Vatileaks scandal which culminated in his personal butler, Paolo Gabriele, being convicted of stealing confidential documents from the papal apartments. After reading and digesting the report, Benedict is believed to have decided that he simply did not have the stamina, physical or mental, to truly clean out the curia.

Benedict VI’s papacy, Vatican observers agree, is marred by scandal but his theological legacy is significant, destined to enter the canon of study for future generations of religious scholars.

Matthew Schmalz, professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, argues Benedict XVI’s legacy is dual and complex: one as pope and one as theologian. “As for his own personal legacy… that will be defined by the issue that concerned Benedict most – how the Catholic Church can still make a difference in the modern world”.

Ed Condon, canon lawyer and co-founder of The Pillar, takes this analysis one step further, arguing that Benedict’s greatest legacy is, in fact, giving Catholicism Pope Francis.

“It might seem counterintuitive but [this] is the most significant and defining legacy of Pope Benedict XVI as governor of the universal Church … that’s not to say he achieved little in office – on the contrary,” he says. “But from the moment that Benedict read out his resignation nearly a decade ago, many church watchers predicted that this would be the defining act of his reign.”

When Benedict announced his decision to step down willingly, the first pope to do so in 600 years, he is said to have favoured the conservative Milanese Cardinal, Angelo Scola, as his successor, setting the scene for an uneasy coexistence with the man elected, Pope Francis.

However, it was his 10, unexpected years of life as self-styled Pope Emeritus which underlined simmering internecine tensions between traditionalists and reformists within the Catholic Church – stresses that exploded into the public realm within days of his funeral.

The more Francis moved to broaden the church’s appeal and reform its social structures, from discussion of Catholic remarriage post divorce, contraception and even married priests, the more Benedict seemed to represent the embodiment of conservative Catholicism. Francis’ outreach to gay Catholics encapsulated by his “Who am I to judge?” comment during an inflight press conference not long after his election in 2013 stood in stark contrast to Benedict’s ban on gay people from seminaries and the priesthood.

A first major clash erupted in 2019 when the Pope Emeritus published a 6,000-word letter in which he attributed clerical sex abuse to a breakdown of church and societal moral teachings. Secularisation in the west and the sexual revolution of the 1960s, wrote Benedict, had resulted in seminaries filled with “homosexual cliques” – a statement in direct contradiction with Pope Francis’ view that sexual abuse by clergy is a product of power and corruption.

Last March, tensions emerged into the public arena when an anonymous memo ferociously critical of Francis’ papacy was circulated among cardinal electors – and was leaked and published in the Italian news magazine L’Espresso. The document described the current pontificate as “a disaster in many or most respects; a catastrophe” and accused Francis of staying silent in the face of evils, from homosexuality and promoting women priests to the possibility of married clergy.

“The silence is emphasised when contrasted with the active persecution of the traditionalists and contemplative convents,” the document stated, making direct reference to Francis’ 2021 decision to clamp down on the traditional Latin mass, a response to an issue the pontiff believed had become a rallying cause for conservative dissent.

This conflict, theological as well as cultural, took an unexpected turn just 11 days after Benedict’s death when Sandro Magister revealed that the author of the anonymous document was none other than the Australian cardinal, George Pell, who had also just died, unexpectedly, in the wake of a routine hip operation.

Pope Benedict XVI leads the First Vespers and Te Deum prayers at St Peter’s Basilica, December 31, 2009

The revelation shocked many as Pell, despite his theological conservatism, had been seen as a Francis ally and supporter of reform. Francis began his papacy by sacking a coterie of powerful, principally Italian cardinals from key posts and replacing them with a new breed of outsiders charged with new watchdog powers to root out corruption.

The brusque Australian was one of the first of these strategic appointments, effectively installed as the Vatican’s first financial tsar backed by a team of independent lay professionals, including the former Deloittes CEO, Libero Milone, and Italian audit and risk management specialist Ferruccio Panicco. Charged with leading the long-promised clean up and reform of the Vatican’s sclerotic financial and investment arms, Pell and his team would uncover a litany of irregularities which ultimately led investigators to the now infamous London property deal and its associated multimillion-pound financial corruption scam – but the two lay specialists lost their jobs for their trouble.

The fact that Milone and Panicco are now suing for wrongful dismissal – and 11 former Vatican officials associated with the deal and church funds are currently on trial for financial corruption – illustrates vividly that Francis’ reform program began with gusto but that his work is far from done.

Pell’s work on behalf of the traditionalists did not stop there and it was revealed that in the days prior to his death, he had penned a further, blistering article for the Spectator in which he described Pope Francis’ forthcoming Catholic Synod as a “toxic nightmare”. Cardinal Pell could not know he would die within days of Pope Benedict’s demise and must have been prepared to face the wrath not only of Pope Francis but the army of supportive reformist clerics – including in Benedict’s native Germany – who have spent the past two years working on a 45-page Synod booklet, dismissed disdainfully as one of the “most incoherent documents ever sent out from Rome”, couched in “neo-Marxist jargon… hostile to apostolic tradition”.

Francis knows that the programme of reforms that emerge from the consultation will undoubtedly be central to his legacy. It may be as radical as the council now known as Vatican II, which between 1962 and 1965 sparked some of the greatest confrontations between traditionalists and reformers in church history. Finally, it produced a vast programme of church renewal, from the new liturgy in local languages to replacing the Latin mass to a historic acceptance of dialogue with other faiths.

The current Synod working document, titled “Enlarge the Space of Your Tent”, is couched in characteristically Franciscan language and a spirit of mission, making room for diversity and “boldly proclaiming [Christ’s] authentic teaching while at the same time offering a witness of radical inclusion and acceptance….” The traditionalists, led by Pell and echoed by some Catholic news sites and senior US cardinals thundered: “What is one to make of this pot pourri, this outpouring of New Age goodwill?”

Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, in his speech to the 2005 conclave which elected him pope, struck a similar note, if rather more elegantly enunciated. Having a clear faith based on the creed of the church, he told the cardinal electors, is too often labelled as fundamentalism, while relativism – “letting oneself be tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” – cannot be the only response to modernity. “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognise anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires” he warned.

During the past year, and despite festering moral tensions and internal opposition, Pope Francis has managed to plough on with his financial reforms, ordering that all Vatican departments close their stock holdings and investment accounts in both foreign and Italian banks, transferring them to a central department known as the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See (APSA). He set strict deadlines and warned explicitly he would not tolerate the dragging of feet. All new investment proposals must now be examined under the new rules which also stripped all Vatican departments of the ability to invest their funds independently and without centralised scrutiny – opaque processes that led to the London property disaster among many others. Francis has also created a new committee including financial lay experts on investment ethics ensuring that Vatican money is used only for ethical, low-risk projects and examined for conflicts of interest such as weapons industries or pharmaceutical sectors involved in contraception, IVF, or stem cells.

Matthew Schmalz believes Pope Francis’ new investment reforms are significant and new limits on speculative investment fit better with his vision for a Catholic “church of the poor”.

Much more needs to be done, of course, particularly amid continuing evidence of a clutch of senior curia determined to hang on to their financial prerogatives. But for now, all eyes are on the Vatican tribunal which is pursuing three concurrent investigations: the notorious Sloane Avenue London deal; the alleged embezzlement by Cardinal Angelo Becciu of Catholic faithful funds in his native Sardinia; and the activities of his friend, Cecilia Marogna, a self-styled intelligence expert who says she was “hired” by the Holy See to negotiate the release of hostages – and is accused of spending ransom money on luxury goods.

Successful and just legal outcomes, says Schmalz, could pave the way for further real, economic reform.

Though he pondered retirement in his AP interview, Francis himself has said he wants to continue his campaign of change and plans to stay on for as long as his health allows.

However, behind the scenes, it is well known that the US bishops have already turned their attention to the next conclave, to be held when and if Pope Francis resigns – or dies. Led by the arch-conservative Broglio, they are hoping for a successor more in the mould of Benedict, one who will restore bishops’ authority to govern rather than democratising the church.

To date, however, Francis has made clear his path. Of the 113 cardinals he has appointed, 83 are qualified to elect the next pope – but just 28 of them are European. With Benedict gone, Francis has renewed impetus to continue to stack the College of Cardinals with reformists who will support his desire to broaden the Catholic tent.

In the end, Benedict’s unexpected decade living with the public spotlight trained on his past showed vividly that papal “retirement” is no walk in the park. As Condon wryly observed, “perhaps it’s better for a pope to die with his slippers on, still at the helm of Peter’s barque.”

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